Sanctum (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sanctum</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, June 2011) The spirit of adventure is something that Sanctum gets right, at least in its first half: The idea of going deep underground, in underwater body-tight passageways is both terrifying and exhilarating, and there’s some joy in seeing characters looking at new things just because no one else has seen them before.  Then the film turns into not just a survival adventure story, but one that is structured around a horror-movie structure –with characters dropping left and right until the story is over.  While some of the footage, special effects and establishing shots are interesting, the same can’t be said about the characters or the dialogue.  Even some of the special effects work looks a bit shoddy at times.  Released in 3D in theaters, the flattened film that can be seen at home has little left to impress.  Of the actors, Richard Roxburgh is most remarkable as a hard-boiled adventurer who will let nothing stand in-between him as his survival.  While the sense of claustrophobia is effectively used and some of the footage evokes a sense of natural awe, most of the action sequences quickly become boring, allowing viewers to tune out until the identity of the latest victim is revealed.  Even at less than two hours, Sanctum feels long, with a third act that could have ended a few minutes early.  While the film is just a bit too beautiful to be called a complete waste of time, it’s nowhere near as gripping as an adventure of that scope should be.

The Hangover Part II (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hangover Part II</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, June 2011) The platonic ideal of a sequel is to recreate the experience of the first film while bringing something new to it.  So it’s not much of a surprise to find out that the screenwriters at work on The Hangover II felt completely justified in stealing the original’s structure almost plot beat per plot beat.  It’s certainly familiar, and that may not be ideal: Part of The Hangover’s appeal was the delirious way in which it went left and right, bowing to traditional narrative expectations only late in the third act.  Here, the element of surprise is gone, and viewers can feel themselves anticipating what should have been twists.  It also lends an unfortunate feeling of laziness to a film that nonetheless went around the world in big-budget style.  It could have been worse, mind you: The characters are recognizable without feeling reduced to catch-phrases (although Zach Galifianakis’s always-irritating “Alan” went from slightly-retarded to too-stupid-to-live in-between the two films), the Bangkok location provides plenty of good color, the rhythm of the film is fine, Bradley Cooper makes for a capable anchor, Ken Jeong is just as refreshing in his brief scenes (even though his presence is absurdly contrived) and up to a certain point, setting the film far away makes it feel a little bit less reprehensible that the quasi-local hijinks of frat-boys gone wild in Vegas.  Still, the film as a whole doesn’t feel quite as joyful as the first one: the laughs seem to suffer in the face of increased danger and raunchiness.  But it’s the feeling of familiarity that brings The Hangover II down, a sense that it’s quite literally going through the same motions as its predecessor.

Faster, James Gleick

<em class="BookTitle">Faster</em>, James Gleick

Vintage, 2000 reprint of 1999 original, 330 pages, C$21.00 pb, ISBN 0-679-77548-X

I am one of the people James Gleick complains about in Faster.  I am the guy who walks past other people on the sidewalk.  I am the guy who fumes whenever cars drive just under the speed limit.  I am the guy who gets annoyed whenever other people don’t pay attention, dawdle, can’t decide or otherwise start messing with my own hyper-efficient schedule.  I am, in other words, part of the problem that Gleick describes when he talks about “the acceleration of just about everything”.

Now, keep in mind Faster‘s copyright date of 1999, right at the peak of the dot-com boom; a short era during which “dot-com time” came to shake what was people’s sense of time.  Suddenly, the online world changed every six months; companies doubled in 60 days, crashed and burned in 18 months.  And things kept accelerating, at least until the dot-bomb recession of 2000-2001.  Faster is very much a book of its era, a horrified contemplation of how fast things can possibly go, alongside doubt that anyone but a few inhuman freaks will be able to hold on to the monster we have collectively created.

As such, most of Faster feels very familiar.  Gleick, the author of such seminal science vulgarization books as Genius and Chaos here turns his attention to a mixture of historical explanation, technical vulgarization and cultural criticism.  In a nutshell: Here’s why/how things went from slow to fast; here’s how fast they really are at the moment; here’s why this is a problem.  Fast food!  Workaholics!  Over-optimized airline schedules!  24-hour news cycle!  Multitasking! Quick-cutting!  MTV!  After a while, it becomes easier to portray Gleick as the stereotypical old man shouting at the kids, not just because they’re on his lawn, but because they can get off of it faster than he can shake his cane at them.  (Also; grandpa, there are better examples of action moviemaking than Sphere.)

The irony here is that Gleick is not wrong, nor has his kvetching been disproven by the past twelve years.  The world has indeed become much faster, and on a very personal level: You just have to contemplate Twitter or the Facebook news feed to find out that near-real-time publishing to the masses has become ubiquitous: It just takes a moderately-good smartphone with an average data plan to consume and broadcast the most trivial details of our lives.  Meanwhile, the big boys of corporate media have grown even savvier in getting their product to the consumer even faster: As of 2011, DVDs are available not much more than three months after theatrical release; eBooks are launched simultaneously with their paper equivalents (otherwise customers complain loudly on Amazon); most music is sold instantly through digital channels (goodbye music stores); news stories are filed and dissected in minutes… and wristwatches (a subject of one of Faster’s early chapters) are now fashion accessories, because there are now built-in clocks in just about any electronic device that surrounds us.  Our culture digests ideas, fads and memes in weeks (Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was released when I read Faster, almost still hip when I wrote this review a month later, but passé to the point of nostalgia by the time I edited it three further months later) and visibly shows signs of impatience whenever it has to wait.  We have become Faster’s worst nightmare.

And yet we still deal with it.  One thing that Faster doesn’t do very well is in pointing out that it’s still relatively easy to punch out of the schedule whenever convenient.  Journalists and politicians may be stuck feeding the news channels, but the rest of us can lay low for a few days and stop paying attention to what’s not part of our lives.  Facebook’s reported recent loss in popularity hints at a truth that Social Media apologists and James Gleick alike aren’t happy to acknowledge: That once past the newness effect, everyone self-selects their pace of life.  After a few days/weeks/months/years, many people move on from their blog postings, twittering or facebook updates: What remains at the slower core is the kernel of what we are.

But as much fun as it is to critique the social critique, there is plenty to like about Faster: The early part of the book has some fascinating material regarding how the notion of globalized time came to be (every American town had its own clock before railways required some standardization), and a chapter on airline scheduling makes the good point that the more efficient a system is, the more it is vulnerable to even small problems –they cascade into big problem due to the lack of slack built in the system.  There are good digressions here and there, such as the sequence in which Gleick pushes the clichéd “Americans spend X minutes every day doing…” statistics into an absurdist dead-end, and a demonstration of “The Strong Law of Small numbers” (ie; there aren’t enough small numbers to be useful.)

I does help that even if Gleick may be a curmudgeon in training, he’s a dependably readable writer.  Faster is entertaining even when its relationship with reality turns a bit suspect; its thesis may be equal part dubious and paranoid, it’s still largely correct.  I do miss the more scientifically-minded topics of Chaos and Genius compared to this more free-flowing cultural/technical critique, but if Faster is a bit of a disappointment, it still has enough good material for compelling cocktail party chatter.

S.W.A.T.: Firefight (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">S.W.A.T.: Firefight</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, June 2011) At a time where the video rental business is crumbling, the Direct-to-Video market is undergoing a curious rehabilitation, even when it comes to cheap action movies.  Helped along with polyvalent digital cameras and cheaper post-production processes, DTV films now look better than ever, and manage to sport scripts, actors and direction that are well above the mediocrity we’ve gotten used to in movies that never played in theaters.  S.W.A.T.: Firefight looks like a perfect example of the form: Sequel-in-name-only to a better-known theatrical action film solely for marketing purposes (there’s practically no story link to the original), it’s a reasonably entertaining way to spend an hour and a half.  Part of the appeal is due to square-jawed Gabriel Macht in the lead role, as a Los Angeles SWAT leader sent to Detroit in order to train the local team.  Refreshingly, the first half of the film adopts a convincingly realistic attitude in portraying a competent SWAT team with minimal dysfunction: S.W.A.T.: Firefight is never as interesting as when it’s showing off the team training, bonding and working together in showcase sequences.  The choice to set the film in the ruins of Detroit is intriguing.  Shannon Kane makes a good impression as a tough new recruit.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film gets farther away from the SWAT rationale the longer it focuses on another improbably all-powerful antagonist who takes a personal dislike to the hero.  It’s not as it Robert Patrick isn’t good, but that the film becomes a lot more predictable once the plot is sketched, and far less interesting as a result.  (It also ends a bit too quickly.)  At least the film moves with energy; director Benny Boom uses his limited budget effectively, even though touches like a gun fastened to a camera give an unpleasant video-game jolt out of the film’s experience.  While the picture quality can’t escape a certain video softness, S.W.A.T.: Firefight looks good, goes by pleasantly, scores a few good scenes and exceeds the low expectation associated with a DTV film.

Porky’s (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Porky’s</strong> (1981)

(On DVD, June 2011) For decades, Porky’s kept a place in film history as an unexpected answer to the question “What’s the highest-grossing Canadian movie of all time?”  It isn’t much of a claim to fame, but it got me interested enough to give it a look.  What has made it to 2011 isn’t much of a classic.  Porky’s isn’t particularly raunchy by the standards of the films it influenced, but it’s certainly unsophisticated, low-budget, scattered and badly structured.  The plot often goes away for a while, returning in-between practical joke set-pieces and other slice of 1950s life as seen from the early eighties.  Feeling a bit long even at 94 minutes, the film is almost pathologically male-centric (women characters are either jokes or cyphers), and feels bigoted even despite some lip-service paid to race-blind male bonding.  Still, there’s something almost endearing about the hormone-driven characters, the carefree atmosphere of movie comedy high-schools and the low-stakes nature of the subplots.  There’s also a pleasing quality to the abundant dialogue between the characters, and a nice fluidity to the way the camera moves in a few scenes.  As far as historical impact goes, Kim Cattrall makes a howling impression in a secondary role; more seriously, you can almost see in Porky’s the blueprint for countless other teenage sex comedies leading straight to American Pie and its ilk.  It’s neither particularly sophisticated nor memorable, but it’s not an entire waste of time.  The “25th anniversary Edition” DVD has no extra features (not even subtitles) and the picture often shows signs of digital over-compression, which is enough to make anyone wonder how bad the regular DVD edition can be.

Color and Light, James Gurney

<em class="BookTitle">Color and Light</em>, James Gurney

Andrews McMeel, 2010, 224 pages, C$28.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-7407-9771-2

You’d have a hard time guessing from these reviews, but I do buy and enjoy a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy art books.  One of my most cherished sections of my library is the one where Michael Whelan art collections sit next to those by Donato Giancola, Chris Foss, Stephan Martinière and a few others.  But enjoying those books is simple; reviewing them isn’t when an appreciation of most of them boil down to “pretty pictures; skilled artists; will buy next volume”.  I get bored just thinking about writing 500 words to explain that.

But James Gurney’s Color and Light is something different.  Billed as “A guide for the Realist Painter”, it’s a book-length tutorial by the creator of the SF/fantasy series Dinotopia.  Aimed primarily at visual artists, it studies topics of colour and light using examples from Gurney’s career, either produced for the commercial market or as a personal study.  Far from a basic “Here’s how to paint” manual, Color and Light tackles questions that even season artists will struggle to master.  A sampling of page headings: Overcast Light, The Mud Debate, Is Moonlight Blue?, Subsurface Scattering; The Hair Secret, Golden Hour Lighting; Snow and Ice; Mountain Streams…

For artists, this isn’t Gurney’s first instructional book: In 2009, Andrews McMeel published Imaginative Realism, a similar book that provided artists with a toolset on “How to Paint What doesn’t Exist”.  It covered ways to adapt the familiar into the unknown nature of fantasy illustration, but also discussed topics such as visual composition.  Color and Light is a natural follow-up to Imaginative Realism, describing in more details an essential set of visual skills.  An interesting part of the book’s approach is how it uses modern tools such as digital photography in order to explain traditional canvas-based techniques.

Not being an artist, I can only guess as to the true worth of what Gurney outlines here.  What I can say is that Color and Light feels like a backstage peek at the mind of painters as they learn to see the world with far fewer assumptions as the rest of us lay viewers.  The book deconstructs elements of color and lighting in order to highlight the subtle ways that reality influences our perception, our understanding of what we see, and even our moods.  Some professional artists may have a near-unconscious understanding of topics such as pigmentation, lightfastness and caustics, but for non-artistic laymen such as myself, Gurney’s explanations hint at the depth of accumulated knowledge that come to rest behind the eyes of a painter.  Part of Color and Light’s impact is in presenting enormously complex topics in a manner that is simple to understand, yet complete enough to suggest the hidden depths of the idea.

This being said, you can appreciate Color and Light as an art-book if you want to.  There’s some great art on nearly every page, as Gurney uses examples from his own professional and personal work to illustrate the topic at hand.  Much of it comes from Dinotopia, of course, but a lot of them are from Gurney’s personal work and sketches, sometimes reflecting where he traveled around the world.  It is, in its own way, an impressive testimony not only to Gurney’s technical credentials as he meticulously explains art history and techniques to readers, but also a demonstration of his willingness to constantly improve his own understanding of the art and distil his wisdom in a few hundred pages.  I don’t think any professional ever sets out to coast on what they know for the rest of their career, but Gurney demonstrates the opposite, and how he is, even at the height of his own personal success, still trying new things, still daring to expose himself to criticism by putting together an instructional book.

For those who are curious to see what Gurney is now working on, you can always follow his daily blog for regular updates, artwork and ideas.  Also get ahold of Color and Light, preferably alongside Imaginative Realism: Beyond being a good look at Gurney’s career so far, it’s an astonishing peek at the mind of a working artist, and the compromises with which they work in nearly every piece.  It’s not just an art book worth buying, not just an art book worth studying, it’s an art book worth reading.

The Hangover (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Hangover</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time.  I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile.  Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies.  It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in.  Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date).  For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed.  Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back.  But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.

X: First Class (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">X: First Class</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence.  Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot.  James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt.  (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff).  The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor.  The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence.  Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole.  X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize.  Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.

Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

<em class="BookTitle">Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons</em>, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Delacorte, 1974, 285 pages, $??.?? hc, ISBN 0-440-08717-1

In the big list of things I still have to do, “Read more Kurt Vonnegut” remains essential.  While Vonnegut is best-known for his fiction, his public persona is equally well-defined by the non-fiction he has written over his long career.  Published in 1974, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons collects some of Vonnegut’s non-fiction pieces dating from 1965 to 1974.  This period is significant in that it marked a significant transition for the author: Two of his best-known novels, Slaughterhouse Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), were published during this period, and his profile appreciated accordingly.  Read the collection carefully, and you can almost see the transition, as Vonnegut goes from writing semi-journalism pieces, to opining professionally, to becoming the subject of lengthy interviews.

An unusually interesting preface presents Vonnegut at his best: self-reflective to the point of self-deprecation, expressing complex ideas with short sentences and simple vocabulary.  It’s easy to become a Vonnegut fan when he seems determined to undermine the false elevation of the writer in the reader’s mind.  I suppose that this, in large part, also accounts for Vonnegut’s reputation as a humanist.

For Science Fiction fans with lengthy memories, the book opens big with a short piece examining Vonnegut’s relationship with the SF genre as of 1965: Vonnegut found himself identified with the genre through what he wrote rather than his intentions.  (“I learned from the reviewers that I was a science-fiction writer” [P.1]) Having no association with the SF community, he spends much of the essay looking at the genre from a bemused observer’s point of view, eventually concluding that the genre is infantile, self-centered and doomed to disappear, since “all lodges [dissolve], sooner or later.” [p.5] SF fans will find it hard not to cringe at the accuracy of the statement.  (Amusingly, the book also collects “Fortitude”, which is nothing but a Science Fiction play in one act.  Vonnegut himself published in acknowledged SF magazines early in his career, making some bewildered statements seem disingenuous.)  Curiously, this essay is seldom acknowledged in SF circles.

But then again, I do live a sheltered existence, and it’s pieces like “Brief Encounters on the Inland Waterway” that make me wonder at how much of the world I still don’t know.  The Inland Waterway, or more accurately “Intracostal Waterway”, is a set of waterways allowing boaters along the eastern and southern American seaboard to navigate from New Jersey to Texas without having to brave the open sea.  Vonnegut used it to travel from Massachusetts to Florida aboard the Kennedy family yacht, and reports his impressions in a series of short, simple vignettes that give a feel for an entirely different world than highway driving.  Digging a bit deeper, I was even more surprised to find out that the Intracostal Waterway links to a nautical route called “The Great Loop”, a component of which passes not a kilometer away from my house.  So, yeah; I live next to a water highway leading straight to Florida.  That’s not exactly the kind of discovery I expected when I picked up Wampeters, Foma & Grandfaloons at a used book sale, but I’ll take it.

Other pieces mix reporting with opinion.  “Teaching the Unteachable” is an acid look at the racket of university writing workshops; “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas” is a half-serene, half-sceptical profile of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; “There’s a Maniac Loose Out There” offers an impressionistic account of Cape Cod dealing with a serial killer, somewhat reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson (whose Fear and Loathing: On the campaign Trail ’72 is favourably reviewed later in the book); “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky” is a portrait of the historical celebrity, whereas, more grimly, “Biafra: A People Betrayed” offers impression on the war-torn African country.

But reporting isn’t Vonnegut’s strength as much as his commentary is.  America from 1965 to 1974 was a cauldron of controversies and revolution, and Vonnegut was there to comment upon the events.  Various pieces consider the American Space Program as an expensive fireworks show, bombing in Vietnam as ineffective torture and American politics as set-dressing for a war of the winners against the losers.  Various addresses to various audiences offer Vonnegut speaking directly to his audience.  The book ends on a lengthy and revealing Playboy interview discussing his inspirations, history, writing methods and progressive prominence as a writer.

The result, as you may expect, is a quirky packaging of pieces that show Vonnegut during one of his most vital periods.  It’s a great way to get acquainted with Vonnegut’s voice, even though I suspect that fans of the author will get the most out of it.  It’s funny; it’s deceptively easy to read and it combines sympathy with cynicism in a way that only Vonnegut could achieve.

Conviction (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Conviction</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, June 2011) There’s something almost earnestly old-fashioned about Conviction, a film that has few scruples about belonging to the “inspiring story based on true events” category.  Here, a woman puts herself through law school for the express purpose of freeing her wrongfully accused brother.  It ends pretty much like you’d think.  Still, Conviction is more polished than you’d expect: the setup is handled efficiently, and the early structure of the film seamlessly meshes two levels of flashbacks to explain how the characters got where they are.  This is the kind of film that showcases actors, and Hilary Swank is very good in the lead role, with a strikingly transformed Sam Rockwell as her wrongfully accused brother.  I almost always, for some reason, enjoy seeing Minnie Driver on-screen, and she gets a lot of screen time as a sidekick to the protagonist’s legal investigation.  For a film of its genre, it’s curiously restrained until the very end, and clever about how it takes us from one detail of the case to the next.  It doesn’t necessarily spring Conviction up and away from typical TV-movie-of-the-week fare (it will live best on DVD than it did in theaters), but it does pretend to be a dramatic awards contender, and it’s not misplaced in those ambitions.  It all piles up to amount to a satisfying film, but not an overly memorable one.